Attack on Titan (進撃の巨人, Shingeki no Kyojin) was one of the big surprises of 2013. I had not read the manga prior to watching the anime, but after a few episodes of the anime I could not contain myself and read the manga through and through. It was a compelling tale of death, destruction and humanity surviving against an unstoppable threat.
There were a lot of things compelling about the series, including the catchy yet epic opening sequence “Guren no Yumiya” complete with awesome mid-air soldier choreography that simply sends shivers down my spine when I see it. The dark tone that exudes despair with just a small glimmer of hope, the Spiderman-esque action of the 3DMG required in slaying the Titans, and the huge conspiracy hidden underneath it all.
It all makes for a very compelling package, but unfortunately somehow it didn’t translate well onto the silver screen. Now, this isn’t anything new. I’ve seen my fair share of live action movies based on anime and manga in my time. Almost all of them are lacklustre, or plain bad. In most cases, you simply can’t condense what makes dozens or hundreds of pages of manga and reams of weekly episodes into a 2-hour movie and expect it to be good. But Attack on Titan’s movie blows all my expectations of mediocrity away. It’s a new kind of awful and the funny thing is, neither the director Shinji Higuchi nor creator Hajime Isayama understand why.
Let me tell you why. (Spoilers Ahead — read at your own risk)
There’s a Whole Slew of Changes that do not Add Anything to the Movie
This is a recurring theme throughout the entire movie, but the point is there are a lot of changes and most, if not all, of them don’t really do anything for it. I’m used to seeing changes to the original work when it is being adapted to a live action movie, but I trust in the writer and director to only make changes that make sense, and do not detract or screw the movie in some way.
Remember Fantastic Four? That movie that got critically panned from every direction in every possible way? The changes we see in Attack on Titan are stupid things like making the Human Torch black. Before you pull the racism card on me, let’s examine the reality. The Human Torch, aka Johnny Storm, is Susan Storm’s brother. So you’re telling me that Sue Storm being played by white-skinned Kate Mara is the brother of Michael B. Jordan, the black guy playing the Human Torch? Let’s not try to get into convoluted arguments of genetics and how maybe they had a different mother. Or Sue was adopted. Or whatever.
The point is, it’s a stupid change just done for the heck of it. It makes no sense, it makes the story more convoluted than it needs to be, and it’s not something that needs to be convoluted. The director hides behind the excuse that he wants to represent “the real world” with this casting change, because black people are all around America. But if the director really wanted to show black representation matching the real world, why not make Mr. Fantastic the black guy, and keep Sue and Johnny white? Or make both Sue and Johnny black. It would achieve his goal, and not be stupid. Surely there’s something at play here – can’t make Mr. Fantastic, the hero and lead guy, black, can’t make his leading lady black, can’t make The Thing black because that would have racism slurs painted all over it. By elimination, the only guy left to pick is the Human Torch. Never mind that it makes zero sense. Maybe because he burns his skin got burnt by his flames? Charred him black. Yes, makes sense.
This is the kind of stupidity we see with Levi, the most popular character in the entire series and one of the lynchpins of the story, being taken out of the film altogether and being replaced by some Shikishima guy “just because” the writer thought that the setting should be more Japanese, so there shouldn’t be any Caucasian guys like Levi, they should be Japanese like Shikishima! Nevermind that Eren and Armin are also Caucasian. But somehow they’re still in the movie. I guess for “minor” characters like Eren and Armin it’s okay, but we can’t have the star of the movie, Levi being Caucasian, right?
It’s the kind of dumb-ass move that stinks of ignorance, racism, and sheer stupidity the same way the Human Torch casting was. And the movie is full of them.
The Characters are All Different. Except for Hange
There are some huge changes in the characterization.
For instance, let’s take Eren. Instead of Eren’s mother dying to provide him with motivation to fight the Titans, Eren is an orphan “who just wants to be free.” Fair enough. He’s characterized to not suck as much as he did in the original work, where he was nothing but an eternal jobber. But this new Eren, with all his alpha male bravado, still fumbles as seen when he tries to scare Armin and Mikasa by fake-detonating the dud missile he is standing on. Then he literally falls on his butt like a tool.
But because his mom isn’t around, Eren instead gets his trauma and motivation from Mikasa allegedly getting eaten by Titans on the virgin raid into the city. Fine, instead of mom kicking the bucket, let’s let the girlfriend die. Would have been great, but it resulted in a lot of awkward scenes, including a Mikasa/Eren/Levi(Shikishima) love triangle, as stupid as that sounds, but what takes the cake is Mikasa’s infamous abs of steel, which somehow are strong enough that they can tank a Titan trying to bite her in half, because how else could she have survived that traumatic day two years ago when she and Eren were separated?
In the only real fan service of the film, we see Mikasa reveal her bare stomach, scarred by a Titan’s jaws, but everything is still there. Rock hard abs of steel – all you need to survive a Titan bite.
Mikasa herself was totally re-written. Instead of being a genius killer who has the almost omniscient ability to know exactly the best way to kill someone or something, Mikasa instead is a demure, helpless maiden who is traumatized by being unable to save a baby, and is picked up by Shikishima and turned into a killing machine by his “tough love.” It’s certainly nowhere as intriguing as her past of intuitively killing a would-be-rapist-and-human-trafficker at the tender age of four or five, but I guess that’s par for the course for this movie.
Armin becomes an inventor instead of a brilliant tactician, sort of stealing the thunder a little from Hange’s tinkering hysterics, and becoming an utterly useless tactician whose brightest idea is to make noise so that they can the draw the Titan’s (unwanted) attention to themselves. Brilliant Armin, certainly brilliant.
The rest of the cast turns into some weird spoof that is so comedic it begs to be seen to be ridiculed. Hans, the gentle soldier who was always there for Eren, is replaced by a Japanese man named Soda. It’s not lost on me that he becomes a drunkard after the Titan disaster, which makes him a Drinking Soda.
Jean and Sasha are there, but become so flat and stereotyped that it hurts to even see them. Sasha’s running gag of being endless hungry eating potatos is kept in the movie, but its flat comedy feels so out of place in the grim terror atmosphere of the movie that it becomes impossible not wince every time she stares at a potato. The best comedy of this movie anyway is all the unintentional seriousness that is so bad, it becomes hilarious.
It’s sad that the movie managed to be funny in ways the director never intended, and fails to amuse when they try to put stupid funny scenes. It’s a major hallmark of incompetence.
The Movie feels like a B-Movie Horror Movie, and lacks the Dramatic Spectacle of the Anime
The movie starts off ambling slowly enough with a narration of mankind’s history so far with the Titans. The problem, is this opening lacks a punch that a more dramatic entry would make. We got the same thing in the anime, but in the anime this happened in episode 2. In the first episode, we got a much more dramatic opening that has become meme-tastic.
“That day, mankind remembered. The terror of being ruled by them. The humiliation of being kept in a cage.” Farmers, peasants, merchants alike, everyone stopped to stare. And we are treated to the horrifying, surreal visage of the Colossal Titan looking over the wall. You can’t really beat that scene, it’s so iconic. And is completely done away with in the movie.
It doesn’t stop there. Instead of focusing on the dramatic imagery that comes with humanity fighting legions of giant monsters, like the Scout Legion riding off in the rain swinging in the air to slay Titans, the movie downplays most of these kinds of scenes and instead focuses on a b-movie horror tone. We see this all throughout the movie, from the Titans attacking the city as the Colossal Titan kicks the wall down, a church being uprooted by hungry Titans, causing the floor to ooze with a river of blood, it’s cheap horror movie fare that I was not expecting in a dark shounen storyline like this.
But the most telling scenes come later, when the Scout Legion (at least, I think it’s the scout legion – they never really make this clear) is out in their APCs trying to transport explosives to the wall. In this scene, they are travelling across the wastelands of a ruined city. Lo and behold, we hear the cries of a baby. Oh! It’s a survivor! Let’s rescue the baby. Never mind that it’s been two years since this place was laid to waste, populated by unstoppable giant monsters eager to stamp out all human life. Surely there can’t be any survivors here, right? Much less a newly-born baby.
But no. It must be a baby! We have to save it! And so they do… and predictably die to the Titans they awaken with their stupidity. It’s this kind of illogical, irrational stupidity that is a staple of the horror movie genre, but it’s ridiculously out of place here in Attack on Titan where humanity’s elite is trying to save mankind from destruction.
The Political Intrigue Turned into a Commentary on the Evils of War
Here’s one of those changes that just hit me the wrong way. In the original work, while there is no doubt that mankind suffered greatly from losing the farmlands inside Wall Maria, the original focused on turning this event into a political conspiracy where the Powers that Be which ruled humankind sent out all the peasants they could not feed to die in a suicide mission to recapture the wall. This all works well with one of the basic themes of Attack on Titan, which is that the ruling class is a corrupt machine that hatches conspiracies and keeps power for the betterment of the ruling elite, and not the people. We see this theme developed further as we go along in the story, culminating in a revolutionary war orchestrated by the Scout Legion to topple a corrupt monarchy.
There is little evidence of this theme in the movie. Instead, we are patronizingly given scenes of “War is Evil” as we see children and family being separated from the “Scout Legion Volunteers” who must go off to war to fight the Titans. This kind of tired tripe is far, far beneath the political intrigue that we got in the original work, and it shows. These poor “scout volunteers” are even revealed to have volunteered to wage this inhuman war only for the purpose of getting subsidies from the government to support their families, in a kind of “war prostituting.” The point of prostitution is not lost when we discover that Hiana, one of the original characters, is a single mother who is “prostituting” herself to the war effort to support her child, and further prostituting herself to Eren in order to have him provide for her and her child.
It worked well in Les Miserables with Fantine and Cosette, but this ain’t no Les Miserables.
The Original Characters were Rubbish
File this one under the category of unnecessary changes that detract rather than build up the movie. The movie added quite a few original characters, which don’t really make sense to me given how out-of-character everyone is, they could have just used any existing character and retooled him for whatever purpose they needed.
Instead, they see it fit to add in new characters entirely – most of whom are Japanese like Fukushi and Soda, but some of whom aren’t exactly Japanese-named, like Lil.
The inclusion of Lil and Fukushi, the lovebirds whose very entry had me gawking at the two people making out in line for a soup kitchen. It was so out of place and hilarious that I couldn’t stop laughing. These two though are there to further a deranged plot whose point was to destroy mankind’s hope of sealing the wall, but having the two of them there was more of an eyesore than anything. They endlessly make out on screen, and even come to a sex scene that was so ridiculous and out of place. Lines like, “let’s do it here,” “but there’s someone over there!” “They’re not looking,” had me rolling my eyes, and they even manage to smugly put in a line of how the Evils of War prevents lovers from being together.
It’s still not as big a laugh as Hiana, the next original character. She is the single mother I alluded earlier who prostitutes herself to Eren, and the idea is so ludicrously out of place that it just manages to serve up the next laugh-out-loud scene, which is Eren’s huge at the hands of a Titan. As Eren is being seduced by the wily Hiana, Eren manages to look reluctant but his body is altogether willing to go along with Hiana’s lustiness. Unfortunately for him, he was a born jobber and a Titan promptly shows up, in the dead of the night, to cock block Eren by literally picking her lusty body off of Eren’s aroused form and popping her like a cherry. Yes, I mean that in the edible way. That has to be the Cock Block Scene of the Year right there.
But perhaps the biggest point of contention for me is Sannagi. This guy becomes the “big guy” character who supports Eren and helps out in the fights against the Titans. This in itself is not a big deal, except when the director decides to highlight this original character and you the directory/writer loves him a lot, because he does something nobody in the original work or in the movie does: he single-handedly destroys the Mythology of the Titans.
What do I mean? The Titans are supposed to be this unstoppable monstrous force that is immune to cannons, explosives, ballistas firing sharpened tree trunks and all other forms of harm. The only thing that can kill them is a strong blow to the nape of the neck, killing them instantly. Throughout the entire run of the original work, the Titans have been a dangerous enemy that cannot be stopped through any other means than the 3DMG-equipped soldiers slicing their necks, and the odd instance where Erwin Smith’s tactics temporarily (and I emphasize temporarily) restrain a Titan.
Yet here comes Sannagi, one man, who single-handedly incapacitates Titans using nothing but his arms. It’s not just that one scene where the director lovingly makes him catch a Titan’s descending foot and topple him with a burst of strength and bravado. That alone was already a critical, shattering blow to the Titan’s Mythology. A lone man catching a Titan and throwing him over? If Judo could work on Titans, then surely the Japanese would never have succumbed to the Titan menace. (But then, perhaps that’s what we’re seeing here in this film? Subverting the original Caucasian cast and replacing them with Japanese who can judo toss a Titan with impunity, is director Higuchi trying to send out some thinly-veiled rotes of patriotism here, just as he did when he sacked Levi and replaced him with Shikishima?)
Sannagi follows up his antics by hamstringing Titans’ Achilles Tendon with a huge axe, quite a few times. Easily disabling deadly Titans who can’t seem to regenerate and get up from such tiny wounds. The amount of love this character was given in doing stunts that nobody in the original series could even hope to do is just so damning. And it laughs at the face of what a Titan is, the very concept of this series.
This is gutting a franchise at its finest, it is.
The Best Part of the Movie… is the Special FX
And it wasn’t even that good. I mean, I’ll give it to the movie and Nishimura’s capabilities in special FX. The resulting Titans, the overall cinematography, it was actually not half bad. The Titans were convincing as gigantic monsters eating people, even if the blood sometimes got hilariously exaggerated.
The scene where the Colossal Titan looms over the wall, spewing super-heated gas and roaring all over the place to smash Wall Maria (oh wait… they called it something else in the movie) in was pretty breath taking.
Unfortunately, it’s terrible when the best part of a movie like Attack on Titan, is the special FX and not the story, the characters, or the overarching themes behind it all. It’s just a crying shame, but this is the kind of criticism we often level against American blockbuster movies which are all style and no substance. It’s the same thing here, and it’s the same reason why the movie as a whole sucks.
I could really go on and on about how bad this movie is. But let’s save everyone the heartache. All you need to know is that this movie took a very nice property and proceeded to gut it in the most unbelievable ways. There has to be a rare level of talent to be able to destroy something so recklessly and yet so appropriately the way Higuchi and Isayama managed in this film. That Isayama is the original author just makes it more mind-boggling. It makes one wonder if he himself understands what made his own work such a great success. Apparently he doesn’t have a clue.
But I would still give it a nod to watch. The movie is so bad, it’s good. In an unflattering way. Just like any good trainwreck, this movie is so bad that you can’t stop yourself from looking, and when you do, you can’t help but smile and laugh at how stupid it is. TLDR: Watch it for the LULZ.